Cleanup of one of the spills that occurred in the community of 18 de Noviembre, in Shushufindi, Sucumbíos. This image was taken during the visit of a commission of assembly members to the area last December. Photo: Municipal Autonomous Government of Shushufindi.
On June 26, Ecuador celebrated 49 years of having transported for the first time a barrel of oil through the Trans Ecuadorian Pipeline. Since then, the country's economy has been anchored to oil production. But this bonanza has also meant serious environmental impacts. In Ecuador, during 2020, there were an average of almost two oil spills every week, according to official figures from the Ministry of Environment accessed by PlanV.
In recent years the frequency of these events has increased. In 2013, that same state portfolio reported that the average number of this type of accidents between 2000 and 2010 was almost 50 per year. In 2011, according to data from the ministry cited by the now defunct newspaper Hoy and collected in turn by the BBC, 60 oil spills were reported in the country. This was the last official information published on this subject.
On June 26, 1972, crude oil from the Amazon traveled through the Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline from Lago Agrio to Esmeraldas. Two days later, there were celebrations in Quito and the authorities placed the first barrel on a war tank to parade through the streets of the city center.
Now, the Ministry of Environment provided updated figures. From its report, it appears that the worst year in terms of number of spills was 2016: 248 or almost five spills per week were recorded. So far in 2021, 46 spills have already been recorded, which maintains the 2020 trend of two spills per week. In total, between 2015 and June 2021 there have been 899 events. How much oil has been spilled and its impact zones? PlanV requested that information, but the Ministry did not provide it.
In fact, in a first request made by PlanV, the country's environmental authority responded that this information should be requested to each of the private and state companies. In a direct consultation to an official of the Ministry's Communication area about the existence or not of these databases, she said that this information is "sensitive" and therefore should be requested through the Law of Access to Public Information. PlanV made such request and thus obtained the data that, in the opinion of experts, should be public and easily accessible.
PlanV also asked Petroecuador about the number of spills it has registered in its oil infrastructure in recent years, but as of the closing of this edition there was no response.
Dozens of spills in six months
If any place in the country knows of continuous oil spills, it is the community of 18 de Noviembre, in Shushufindi (Sucumbíos), one of the fields that generates the largest oil production in Ecuador. Fernando Agila, president of the 18 de Noviembre pre-cooperative, explains that they are located in Block 57, operated by Petroamazonas, a company that was absorbed by Petroecuador in recent months. In his opinion, the oil infrastructure pipelines in this area have already reached their useful life and are obsolete. However, they are still in operation.
For this reason, during the last six months of last year in this sector there were 36 spills in the perimeter of the community, said the leader in an interview with PlanV. Two of them affected marshes or estuaries that connect to the Itaya River. "In addition to the fact that we were in a pandemic, it was like a bombardment for the community". The Agenciaecologista.info portal has news of seven of these accidents. But there are also records of spills in Waorani and Kichwa communities in Orellana throughout 2020. In the Valle de los Aucas community alone, in the same province, there were five spills in the same place where Petroamazonas, now Petroecuador, operated.
Agila says that official reports have tried to deny the impacts of these spills, such as the contamination of water and farms dedicated to agriculture. There are palm and cocoa plantations there; and other residents are involved in poultry, fish and livestock farming.
But the impact is not only in the visible contamination. Products from communities near the oil infrastructure lose market value because of their origin. If consumers know that the product is from the Amazon, they prefer not to buy it because "it is contaminated," says Agila.
This leader is also secretary general of the 59 communities that make up Block 57 and says that collectively they have requested the immediate change of the pipelines. "This is a time bomb. This infrastructure passes through the middle of towns or roads.
Agila says that the population's complaints have had an effect. In the first spills, he says, they only called the oil company. But when they became so frequent, the community went on strike, so the riot police arrived. "Before talking to us, they would send in the security forces." Since last December there have been no new spills.
This is due to the pipeline changes made by Petroecuador in the area. This was reported in the December 7 session of the Biodiversity and Natural Resources Commission of the National Assembly, in which the then Minister of Energy, René Ortiz, also appeared. Regarding the spills of November 7 and 17 of last year, he said that they occurred within the "Petroamazonas pipeline right of way without affecting third parties".
He was accompanied by officials of the Ministry and technicians of the oil company. There the authorities explained that this right of way comprises 15 meters on each side of the pipe and assured that these did not affect the rivers. The officials showed a map with the locations of the spills, which indicated a location 70 and 283 meters from the Itaya River, and 17 kilometers from the Napo River.
Last December, members of the Biodiversity and Natural Resources Commission of the National Assembly arrived in 18 de Noviembre to verify the spills that the community had denounced. Photos: Municipal Government of Shushufindi.
Photo: Radio Sucumbíos Facebook
The contamination of drinking water has caused health problems for the inhabitants, who so far have not received any help.
But this argument was countered by Agila, who was also present at the session. He said that the sectors of the spills are on slopes and with the rain the contamination reached the Itaya river. The community has been requesting repair work for two years due to the permanent leaks and the presence of holes. "Only this week they are plugging those holes at a fast pace", said the leader before the Minister and the assembly members.
The work to change two pipelines (a total of 450 meters in length between the two, according to Petroecuador) began last November. In this sector, 100% of the pipeline is buried. A technician explained that there was a hole in the pipes because the covering had come loose. The cause, according to the same technician, could have been the movement of the earth generated by the passage of vehicles.
Through an email, Petroecuador informed Planv that pipeline changes or repairs are carried out according to the inspection reports of the Mechanical Integrity department of the state-owned company. In the Shushufindi Field, between June 2020 and June 2021, 76 works of changes of sections and repairs have been executed, of which 18 correspond to the sector of the 18 de Noviembre community.
Agila told the Commission that he has made three analyses of the water from the plant that supplies the liquid to the community, which were positive for hydrocarbons. These results differ from other analyses that Petroamazonas delivered to the community a year after it took the samples. These were negative. This, he said, is a violation of the rights of 470 families that consume that water. Assembly members of the Commission visited the community last December, but so far there has been no report on the visit.
The claims of the community members are not recent. On November 10, 2018, there was a spill in that community that affected the land of Mrs. Mayra Córdova. In a letter addressed to Petroamazonas she told that crude oil and formation waters contaminated her farm and the dam that was used for her cattle to drink water. She also said that the workers had collected 20 tanks of 200 liters each with these waters and two years later there were still traces of contamination. But a report from the Ministry of Environment assured that the amount spilled was 0.5 barrels although in its annexes there are photographs of seven tanks. Petroamazonas offered US$234 in compensation. That spill was also caused by corrosion of the pipeline and in the same sector, in 2020, there was another spill, Agila said.
The Ministry of Environment's report shows seven tanks that were used to collect the hydrocarbon that spilled in the 18 de Noviembre community at the end of 2018. But the official report mentioned that the amount spilled was half a barrel.
Minor spills also matter
Alexandra Almeida, a member of Acción Ecológica who has followed oil pollution closely for almost two decades, recalls that the organization campaigned, between 2002-2003, to prevent the construction of the Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline (OCP). The company that manages it, which has the same name, is private. By then, the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System (SOTE), operated by state-owned Petroamazonas and now Petroecuador, had a long history of spills. Environmentalists believed that the new pipeline would be another risk to Nature. During the construction of the OCP alone there were five spills, one of which was 20,000 barrels in the Papallacta lagoon in 2003, says Almeida.
Since 2009 there have been three high-impact spills. In that year there was one of 14,000 barrels of OCP, in the sector of Santa Rosa, in the canton of El Chaco, Napo province. The disaster area was located between the protected areas of Cayambe, Coca and Sumaco. The Salado, Quijos, Santa Rosa and Coca rivers were affected.
THE IMPACTS OF THAT SPILL ARE STILL BEING FELT. THE AFFECTED COMMUNITIES ARE STILL WAITING FOR ATTENTION TO THEIR CLAIMS FOR REPARATIONS FOR THE CONTAMINATION THAT HAS AFFECTED THEIR FOOD AND WATER SUPPLY.
Then in 2013, an avalanche destroyed a section of the SOTE in the area of the Reventador volcano, Sucumbios province, which caused the spill of 11,480 barrels of crude oil. The contamination reached the Quijos river, from there to the Coca river and from there to the Napo river as far as Peru, causing alarm in Brazil. That year was difficult due to oil contamination. A month before that spill, 5,500 barrels also spilled in the rural area of Wínchele, in Esmeraldas, due to the rupture of the OCP.
The next spill of great impact was in April 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, when pipes of the OCP, the SOTE and the Poliducto broke due to the effects of the regressive erosion that had already collapsed months before the San Rafael waterfall. On this occasion, 15,800 barrels of crude oil mainly, but also gasoline, were spilled into the Coca and Napo rivers. The impacts of this spill are still being felt in the affected communities that are still waiting for attention to their claims for reparation for the contamination that has affected their food and the water they use.
However, according to Petroecuador, only two of the 83 sites where soil and water samples that were collected exceeded the parameters of the current regulations in force. These sites were Dashiño and Playas del Coca, where cleanup and remediation work concluded on April 21. The final sampling at these sites was scheduled for July 2 in the presence of delegates from the environmental authority, the communities and the operators.
Almeida emphasizes that these have been the most visible spills, but in Ecuador there is a hydrocarbon leak almost every day. But these data are not part of the official statistics, says the expert, because they are almost imperceptible as the drips. These are not detected by the valves used to identify a possible spill due to the drop in pressure in the pipelines. These drips form puddles and, when it rains, these substances go to the rivers, she says.
That is because the infrastructure in the Amazon is very old and has almost finished its useful life, he adds. "In some places there are still pipes laid by Texaco, which have been gone for many years. Those that are next to the road with a stone from a car that passes quickly can break". But there is also a new pipeline, such as the one in the community of 18 de Noviembre, which was installed in 2013. "There is some issue of corruption at the time of buying the defective pipe, perhaps for less cost."
In the case of 18 de Noviembre, they were not large volumes, but they are enough to affect the bodies of water that serve as catchment sources for the communities' piped water, says Almeida.
But in Ecuador, until April 2020, remediation of damage caused by spills of less than five barrels of crude oil was not monitored by the Ministry of Environment. Article 16 of the Environmental Regulation of Hydrocarbon Activities, which was in force until that date, referred to this issue. It said: "The remediation programs or projects subject to approval and follow-up by the Undersecretariat of Environmental Protection through the National Directorate of Hydrocarbons Environmental Protection will be the remediation of pools and/or contaminated soils, as well as the remediation after major accidents in which more than five barrels of crude oil, fuel or other product have been spilled".
IN ECUADOR, UNTIL APRIL 2020, REMEDIATION OF DAMAGE CAUSED BY SPILLS OF LESS THAN FIVE BARRELS OF CRUDE OIL WAS NOT MONITORED BY THE MINISTRY OF THE ENVIRONMENT.
This article was used by the oil companies. Almeida recalls a 2012 spill of formation waters in Waorani territory, in Block 16, operated by Repsol. Waorani leaders reported it to Acción Ecológica and this organization published the news, adding that the spill affected a tributary that reaches the Yasuní. Repsol responded that this was not true. The Waorani leader denied the oil company and published evidence. "To justify itself, the company said that this spill was of three barrels, therefore it had no obligation to report it to the control authorities." A spill of that size in a community's water source completely ruins them, assures Almeida.
But it is not only the Amazon that has been affected by oil pollution. Esmeraldas is another big victim. In the Teaone River, in 1998, the El Niño Phenomenon caused a landslide that fell on the SOTE and the Poliducto. The two pipelines ruptured and the oil and fuel flowed down the Teaone River and from there into the neighborhoods. The fuel caught fire along the way, burning houses and leaving victims and missing persons. One of these neighborhoods, Propicia 1, filed a lawsuit against Petroecuador and in 2003 won the lawsuit in the last instance. The state-owned company had to pay US$11 million in works to the neighborhood and take measures to avoid further mishaps. Almeida believes that only 40% of that amount has been invested in the neighborhood with some works such as a maternity hospital and day care centers, but that currently they no longer function. "It was earned just on paper, nothing more".
POINT OF VIEW
‘Oil pollution in the northern Amazon is chronic and severe’
Jorge Celi, ecologist
I have studied the rivers of the northern Amazon to a greater extent. In the Cuyabeno, in the 90s, there had already been some oil spills in the lagoons. The headwaters of this reserve are precisely where there is the most oil exploitation. The formation waters, which arrive mixed with the oil, instead of being injected into the subsoil, are released into the streams and marshes. These waters are not completely treated and have high salinity and many hydrocarbon compounds. This is very toxic. This water contaminates people and animals. People told us that they found oil accumulation between the muscles of the cows when they died. The rivers that cross the highway, which runs from Lago Agrio to the Colombian border, are the ones that have suffered the most contamination. A colleague who did a study with collaborators from Europe on fish in the region found very few species.
When I worked in Cuyabeno, when I touched the sediments in some sectors of the lagoons there was still crude oil. As the crude oil floats, it is carried away with the water of the rivers or is impregnated in the vegetation. But what is mixed with the sediments cannot be cleaned and will remain there until it decomposes. But your heavy metals don't decompose, they accumulate. These ecosystems have accumulated heavy metals and many animals eat those sediments, which then serve as food for humans. The northern Amazon, in particular, is a very oil-rich area. Sectors such as Limoncocha, Lago Agrio, Coca, even Yasuni, have a very chronic and severe contamination. It is not only the spills caused by accidents but also those produced by poorly done oil wells. I have seen how the crude oil that was cleaned up was put back into holes in the headwaters of the Cuyabeno. There are thousands of environmental liabilities in the northern Amazon since the time of Texaco.
Translated by Manuel Novik